More Tips For Horror

Since the spooky season ain't over yet, here's some more advice on creating horror scenarios and writing horror monsters, whether for a story, video game, or a roleplaying campaign.

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Be aware that visual cues can be subjective, or may require context to become scary.

Too often, people rely on visual cues that really aren't that scary in and of themselves, forgetting that they consider these things to be scary not because they're actually inherently scary, but because they saw them in a context that associated them with fear in their minds.

Thus, someone might make the mistake of using, say, a simple white mask to try and evoke a sense of fear and dread from audiences. This person probably read or saw a story somewhere where a scary figure wore a simple white mask, and so this person now associates masks with fear and dread. But for most people who haven't seen anything that associates masks with anything particularly scary, it's just going to be an inanimate object that happens to resemble a face. To make that mask scary to these people, the writer would have to be sure to have the wearer of the mask or even the mask itself do terrifying things, and should not expect people to feel any real sort of fear about the mask before then.

Likewise, blood in and of itself isn't all that scary. It's a somewhat sticky red fluid (or crusty dark brown substance, if it's dried) and nothing more. The real horror lies in what the blood could represent - a large amount might mean that someone died, and if it's fresh, that the killer could still be around. Any significant amount of blood in your home might mean that a friend or family member has been seriously hurt, or worse.

Simply having gore and monsters in your story does not make it horror.

What makes a story a horror story is its ability to put its audience into a state of fear or dread. While gore can be used to ramp up the fear in an already-tense situation or to hint that something is very wrong and that the protagonists are in danger, if there isn't anything to be afraid of already (or won't be very shortly), the gore isn't going to do much for your story in that regard. Walking into a shed full of mutilated and bloody bodies can be effective if it creates the sense that your protagonist is in real danger, but otherwise there's little point beyond perhaps grossing people out.

It's also important to remember that while supernatural elements are a frequent feature of horror films, simply having them in a story doesn't make it horror - Corpse Bride is full of revenants, but they're no more threatening or sinister than the villagers in Beauty & The Beast. The film contains comedy, drama, and romance - but no real horror. Conversely, a story needn't have any supernatural elements in it be considered horror: the monsters in the 1990 comedy/horror film Tremors aren't supernatural at all - they're just very weird and very dangerous predatory animals.

One "horror" story on the Internet had a girl become friends with a ghost with a bloodied and mutilated appearance. Nobody else could see the ghost (which did cause some tension between her and the others), but there was never any sense that anyone was ever in any danger or that the ghost might make something bad might happen (the ghost was in fact a sympathetic character), and thus the story failed to be remotely frightening. If anything, the story wasn't horror so much as supernatural drama.

Likewise, if you write a story about a protagonist who falls in love with some sort of monster creature and the pair end up going out on a monstrous killing spree together like some kind of ghoulish Bonnie and Clyde, such a story wouldn't be horror, but a supernatural action thriller with villain protagonists.

(Now, a story with a couple like this could be horror if we weren't watching them as protagonists, but were instead watching some other protagonists get terrorized and picked off by this couple.)

In essence, horror happens to the characters we are supposed to be siding with. It is never (knowingly) committed by them. The actual perpetrators of horror are supposed to be objects of fear, dread, disgust, and loathing.

Of course, there is absolutely nothing wrong with writing supernatural dramas and supernatural thrillers and the like - they definitely have their place! - it's just important to remember that simply having supernatural agencies doesn't automatically make your story a horror story.

Back to the subject of gore, the TV show Bones frequently features gruesome corpses (eg, mutilated, bloody, disgustingly decayed, etc.), but it's not horror, as there's no sense of dread or fear around them. If anything, the bodies are frequently used for gross-out humor. Bones and other crime drama shows frequently show things like splattered blood, but it's not horror as the blood is connected to a mystery to be solved, not something that (usually) threatens and stalks the protagonists.

Basically, it's not what you use in a story that makes it horror, but rather whether you succeed at creating a fearful and threatening atmosphere with it... and anything you can use to that effect can make your story a horror story.

Making your monster untouchable/invincible/unstoppable doesn't necessarily make it scarier.

The moment it becomes clear that your monster cannot die, be stopped, or escaped from is the moment that you lose a lot of potential dramatic value: when you know for sure that the protagonists are doomed, you no longer have any reason to stick around to find out what happens to them - you already know they're dead meat. (A story where you already know everyone is going to die messily and that's the reason you're watching it isn't horror, but gorn.)

Showing that your monster can be hurt or warded off (if at least temporarily) can make the story more interesting to audiences, as they'll be less likely to know what to expect in the end, which in turn can make them more curious to find out what does happen.

If your monster suffers from setbacks, this can mean that your monster may have to fight smarter rather than harder and find alternate ways of getting at your protagonists, which can make the story more interesting or be used to generate fear. Let's say your protagonists locked the doors and windows to keep the monster out. You could just have the monster teleport inside or break the door down in a single blow... or you could have the monster realize that the basement windows were unlocked, and play up the drama of the protagonists hearing noises coming from the basement.

Also, a monster that has clearly taken damage and is suffering from it, yet still comes after you anyway can be terrifying in and of itself, as it demonstrates that your monster has incredible tenacity and won't simply give up.

The importance of making monsters vulnerable goes extra for horror-themed roleplays: if the players all know or will soon figure out that their characters are doomed the moment the monster takes a shine to pick them off, then what reason do they have to make their characters do anything at all? What motivation do they have to actually try anything as opposed to having their characters party until the end inevitably comes?

So in summary...

Also check out:

Tips For Writing & Maintaining A Horror Atmosphere
On Creating, Building, & Keeping Suspense
Basic Tips To Make Scarier & Better Creepypasta & Horror Creeps
Things About Death, Dying, & Murder Writers Need To Know
Things Writers Get Wrong About Bladed Weapons
Creepypasta & Horror Creep Generator
Creepy Site Generator
Common Plotholes In Vampire Fiction
Tips & Ideas To Write More Believable Masquerades

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